By Julia Gray Saunders
Minnie Smith Reinhardt’s 1985 painting, Dinner on the Grounds of the Corinth Baptist Church, depicts a local church congregation’s Sunday feast in the countryside of early 19th-century North Carolina. Reinhardt was a North Carolina resident; she had six children, worked on a farm, and as she phrased it, watched the “cutting wheat and picking cotton” (Ackland, 1). At age seventy-seven Reinhardt began painting the details and scenes of her rural life. Although Reinhardt painted this church repeatedly over time, this particular painting is of the annual Sunday afternoon gathering in August (Ackland, 1).
Reinhardt’s painting of the congregation creates a tone of nostalgia for kind community and a slower-paced time. The image is the true antithesis of T.S. Eliot’s Cocktail Party, in which the people at the party who know each other act like strangers, and no one is well fed or particularly enjoying themselves because there are only drinks and appetizers. In Cocktail Party there is no meal to bring the party’s members together; the conversations are full of “schmoozing” and superficiality. In Dinner on the Grounds of the Corinth Baptist Church the men, women, and children come together to eat, creating a sense of nostalgia for this warm community. Would this warm community still exist with just the church or just the people? Without the table set for eating, the true bond would not persist. The way the people form a circle around the table, beckoning to the stragglers who still have not joined them, would not visually come across the same way without the table and thus the food. They are all dressed-up for this special annual occasion— a true feast because of its rarity, exceptionality. While the church-goers come together to the church every Sunday to pray, sing, and worship God, Reinhardt recalls this annual meal as her subject to show the compassion and connection between the people as individuals and as a group.
The feast also shows the simple, untouched America Reinhardt longs for and remembers so vividly. One traveled by horse and wagon and lived in primary colors. The subjects of the painting are America’s settlers and the undoubted members of the United States’ “Golden Age.” In the picture, there is a white wooden church in the middle of the woods. The abandoned horses and wagons are all tied to trees on the left side of the church. In the foreground, are primary colored flowers, shedding brightness and color into the scene as well as mimicking the coloring of the congregation’s clothes. Dressed in their Sunday dresses and hats, all but four people are either surrounding or walking toward the white table clothed table on the right side of the Church. The table echoes the church’s white and represents its purity and thus importance to the people. On the far right side of the painting, two pairs of men are talking in the shadows of the trees away from the group feasting. Both are touching hands and seem to be in serious conversation because they are detached from the community. Perhaps these pairs of men negatively foreshadow the business and loss of community that will accompany America’s future.
Reinhardt creates her nostalgic tone in Dinner on the Grounds of the Corinth Baptist Church with this picture of an untouched, slower-moving America. Because Reinhardt chose this simple, quaint annual scene as the subject of her work in 1985, there was something that she wanted to recreate, something she longed for about this time period. The feast is imperative to produce this longing. The scene would not be the same if the congregation was walking in before the service or gathering in groups talking after the service. An onlooker sees the people’s kind-hearted relationships created by breaking bread together. While the beliefs brought them together as members of the same church, it is the eating after church that perpetuates their community, their circle.
“Dinner on the Grounds of the Corinth Baptist Church.” Art at the Ackland. Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, n. d. 16 Oct. 2010. <http://www.ackland.org/art/collection/search/Result.php?accession=86.5.>
“Painting, Memory: the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art.” Book Rags. Book Rags, 2009. 20 Oct 2010. <http://citationmachine.net/index2.php?reqstyleid=1&mode=form&reqsrcid=MLAWebDocument&more=yes&nameCnt=1>.